Disassociated: ‘Is that me?’ or Mach on the Physical and Psychical

Questions of self-identity are popular these days, but then they are perhaps popular in all eras.  Popular films incorporating this element include ‘the Bourne Identity’ and ‘Unknown’.  In both films, the central character struggles to discover who he is, or perhaps who he was

For those of us not struggling with amnesia, the problem of permanence or connection of our current self with the past self (or rather selves) might rarely occur.  After all, most mornings I do n’t wake up wondering at any truly deep level who I am – or if I do it does n’t have any consequences.  If the question is ever posed, memory swats it away. 

According to Ernst Mach,

“Further, that complex of memories, moods, and feelings, joined to a particular body (the human body), which is called the “I” or “Ego,” manifests itself as relatively permanent.  I may be engaged upon this or that subject, I may be quiet and cheerful, excited and ill-humored.  Yet, pathological cases apart, enough durable features remain to identify the ego.  Of course, the ego also is only of relative permanency.”

~The Analysis of Sensations and the Relation of the Physical to the Psychical, Ch. 1.  Trans. by C.M. Williams and printed in ‘The European Philosophers from Descartes to Nietzsche’ p. 769

So for Mach this permanency of Ego is n’t so permanent.  In fact it ‘s largely illusory. 

The apparent permanency of the ego consists chiefly in the single fact of its continuity, in the slowness of its changes.  The many thoughts and plans of yesterday that are continued to-day, and of which our environment in waking hours incessantly reminds us (whence in dreams the ego can be very indistinct, doubled, or entirely wanting), and the little habits that are unconsciously and involuntarily kept up for long periods of time, constitute the groundwork of the ego.  There can hardly be greater differences in the egos of different people, than occur in the course of years in one person.  When I recall to-day my early youth, I should take the boy that I then was, with the exception of a few individual features, for a different person, were it not for the existence of the chain of memories.  Many an article that I myself penned twenty years ago impresses me now as something quite foreign to myself.  The very gradual character of the changes of the body also contributes to the stability of the ego, but in a much less degree than people imagine. 

~ibidem, pp. 769-770

I must say there is nothing by which I can connect myself today, though he seems very like the me of yesterday, with the 2008 study abroad version of myself, or the 2004 fresh college transfer version, or the junior high school baseball player who read a few books over his head some summers ago – save memory.  And I ‘m too nostalgic not to note that my memories are changing to, not simply as I forget more things but as my vantage point changes.  While the day-to-day flux seems minimal and easily corrected for if I ponder yesterday’s events, when stretched across the canvas of larger time periods I find I can offer little explanation for the macro-changes, the gestalt shifts that have taken place.  Truly I would be unrecognizable to my 2004 predecessor.

Worse, I find that I am largely unrecognizable to myself in any enduring fashion!  I do n’t journal consistently, so that evidence cannot be called against this faltering witness, but I have critically engaged with myself as a habit for many years.  If there is any story to be told, it is that each point of view I have taken up has only had significance in relation to some purpose; and as such, my views have no absolute, permanent validity (as Mach from ‘the European Philosophers’ p. 790).


But some will have already foreseen the dubious nature of such views for those anticipating a bodily resurrection.  This is no problem for Mach, for he rejects such as unnecessary impediments (ibid, p. 785).  For Christian and Muslim believers, this is a considerable problem.  Resurrection is kind of a big deal.

Perhaps it is n’t often a believer thinks at any deep level about what the concept of a bodily resurrection entails philosophically.  After all, it is a promise for the faithful afforded by revelation (sourced either in Jesus or the Qur’an) before ever philosphical language is consulted.  But critical thought is not the enemy of religion so long as it does not supplant faithfulness and obedience for these are primary. 


Seriously though, how are we to expect a bodily resurrection to look?  In the New Testament/Injeel, the resurrected Christ is recognizable to his followers at the minimum as human (though unusual) and seems to be fully recognizable after some period of testing (on occasion).  While resurrection is no everyday thing, the resurrected Christ is n’t some monstrosity or tertium quid.  As such there seems to be something recognizable of his personality or self, even though his body at will passes through walls.

If God is to resurrect the faithful according to His promise, which self is going to be renewed?  Oh yes, of course it ‘ll be you, but are you the exact quantum states of each atom you might consider part of yourself?  Or wait, maybe now.  By tomorrow, if you were able to count, there ‘d be something akin to a slightly different body.  But then, we simply have to connect it all through memory.  If God recreates a set of memories we ‘d recognize as our own, then maybe we can say He ‘s successfully resurrected that which we used to (and can now again call) ‘I’.  But our memories are very much in flux. 

It is for this reason Dr. Augsberger, one of my wife’s professors, calls marriage ‘a series of monogamous relationships’.  The ‘we’ who say those vows are not the ‘we’ a few months later, much less years or decades.  So, we must say with Mach: “The ego is as little absolutely permanent as are bodies.  That which we so much dread in death, the annihilation of our permanency, actually occurs in life in abundant measure. (ibid, p. 770)”


Or perhaps, we have other options (I ‘ll give two, feel free to add your own): 1.  The ‘I’ is illusory.  Mach does an excellent job demonstrating the indefinite extensibility of the ego.  That which we experience as the self is actually provided for us by God.  We exist at His pleasure and, in whatever way He chooses, we will experience resurrection in some recognizably parallel manner.  In such case, nothing is particularly given of itself.  Insofar as I exist I am unable to picture my existence truly independent of other beings.  Perhaps this would be compatible with some form of acosmism, in which only God truly exists and no finite thing can claim any true existence.

This seems not to fit so well with the offered personal bodily resurrection expected by Christian or Muslim adherents.  It seems to work on a philosophical level (they do n’t know the nature of their existence after all, so however God chooses to resurrect them is still a gift); but is it recognizable still?  Perhaps not.  The anti-individualism is appealing at moments, but I ‘ll have to say this is unsatisfying as an answer.

2.  We ‘ve gone to some length to speak of the ambiguity attached to the idea of ‘I’ to this point.  I ‘m not so sure that a legitimate monolithic anthropology limits us here.  Is one picture of humanity going to eliminate answers for the Christian or the Muslim?  Perhaps, on careful consideration no answer is necessary.  Although I cannot now tell you who I shall be in the next moment, or in the past these are all in God’s hands.  That is, I see the problem, but I trust that God’s will is manifest in the state of events as they exist.  In the same way, my hope is in God to accomplish his will in resurrecting me and my fellow believers.  How exactly that is to look, I do n’t have many enduring expectations.  Only guesses.  And perhaps that ‘s the best place for me answer from: trust, not uncritical trust, but trust.

Perhaps we need not fear stepping in the river, though neither we nor the river shall be the same in, during, or after the event, for the river is but a path to an end.  Our choice then seems either to step boldly assured of the claims of our Scriptures or entirely do away with any idea of ego or self.  Which is it to be?


One response to “Disassociated: ‘Is that me?’ or Mach on the Physical and Psychical

  1. Instances of this body-problem are innumerable it seems: recently I would include my personal explanation for the hit TV series ‘LOST’ and ‘the Source Code’. Heraclitus always comes to mind, but Edward Mooney brings up Herman Melville’s letters to Nathanael Hawthorne (apparently Melville also felt that the person who picked up the pen to write Hawthorne and the one who was writing it were already separate). It also comes up in George MacDonald’s ‘Lilith’ and ‘the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe’ where when one is removed from one’s familiar context one cannot explain who or what one is.

    Mooney spurs me to think whether the person denoted in the public imagination (his object of study here is S. Kierkegaard) is separable from the person himself. I’m likely to take such a view as I very much think the C.S. Lewis of my imagination and the actual man occupy two different sorts of spaces, much as there is a difference between ‘War and Peace’ as we think of it (the screen-book for Pierre Bayard) and the book we might read [and even the book we might read if we were to acquire familiarity with other Russian literature and culture; reading medieval fantasy makes reading Narnia or the Space Trilogy an entirely different feat from the first times].

    Needless to say, there are clone-questions and time-questions galore. What story or image strikes you, OR do these questions have some bearing on your faith (al-Ghazali defends from the falasifa the notion of a bodily resurrection by showing they no more understand what the body is than any other and so the best course of action is to trust God to do what He promises)?
    By all means, you are invited – even if you aren’t sure what you mean by ‘I’ when you speak.

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